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Prepared by Emma SOLOMATINA. Prirodno-resursnye vedomosti (Bulletin of Natural Resources), 2000
The "Taimyr Mammoth" international project launched in May 1998 involves such leading lights as Professor Nikolai Veresh-chagin who has recovered over 150 mammoths in this country's permafrost; Yves Koppens, Doctor of Archeology, a major French expert on mammoths; Dick Mohl, a Dutch paleontologist researching in the fauna of the Late Pleistocene (Ice Age); Larry Agenbrod, Professor of Northern Arizona University (USA), a paleontologist who has described the bone remains of 52 mammoths that perished 26 thousand years ago on the territory of what is now the State of South Dakota. The head and sponsor of this project is Bernard Buigues (France).
Taking part in this thrilling "mammoth expedition" was Vladimir Eisner, one of the custodians of the Taimyr wildlife sanctuary Here is his story:
It happened in May 1996. Trudging along one of the snow-driven banks of the stream Kyrsa-Yuryakh near the community of Khatanga, reindeer-breeder Alexei Zharkov stumbled upon some object sticking out of the snow. The man called in his son and son-in- law. The three identified the thing as the tip of a mammoth's tusk. Marking up that place, they returned there in the beginning of September when the soil thawed to a depth of one meter or thereabouts. The reindeer men dug out two tusks, wrenching them out of the skull alveoli and thus damaging the skull. But we should not be too hard on those men: tusks are a precious thing for tundra residents, for they can sell such items or else barter them for food- stuffs, gasoline, snowmobile parts and the like. Besides, tusks are used for making reindeer harnesses, decorations and amulets... Still, the reindeer-breeders advised the local administration of the find. Its head, Nikolai Fokin, had a brainwave: why not set up a museum then and there, at Khatanga, right in the permafrost within one of the large natural ice-houses used for meat and fish keeping? That museum would exhibit the mammoth and other animals of that age. All the more so as a good many people are now coming to Khatanga-polar expedition members and parties setting out for the Taimyr tundra. The idea won support from Yuri Karbainov, director of the Taimyr sanctuary, and Bernard Buigues, head of a French tourist firm. Thumbs up, they turned to the job at hand.
They enlisted the aid of a research team often-five from France and just as many of our people who descended on the steep bank of the Kyrsa-Yuryakh, 200 km from Khatanga, 74N. Digging into the permafrost, the men recovered the mammoth's skull with well- preserved teeth, each tooth the size of a boot (mammoths had only four-two teeth in each jaw). Next, they took samples from the dig-soil samples and those from the surface of the animal's bones, teeth, wool, skin and soft tissues.
Yet the party had to discontinue its work early in June with the onset of the spring thaw: water started filling the hole. To cap the misery Dr. Buigues fell sick-he who had taken such pains to cleanse a large patch of the mammoth's skin covered with auburn lur. Nikolai Xereshchagin flew in from St. Petersburg to display this piece at a press conference staged at Khatanga on June 5, 1998. Next, together with Bernard Buigues and two workers we walked "to the mammoth" where, digging a trench, we drained the water from the hole.
According to Dr. Buigues, a radioac-tivation study carried out in the Netherlands showed the age of "Zharkov's mammoth" to be 20,380? 140 years. What concerned microbiological studies, no pathogenic bacteria-an awful thing!-were found in the body thus far. To tell the tmth, we were afraid of some "pest", for who knows what caused the animal's death.
And here's something else that Bernard told us: soft tissue cells of the mammoth happened to be mummified, dehydrated and ruptured by permafrost. Should a chunk of meat like that thaw, it will spread thin like a jellyfish on hot sand. But the bone cells, though dead, were intact and possibly good for cloning. Running ahead of my story, I must say that in the opinion of Nikolai Vereshchagin, Dick Mohl, Yves Koppens and Larry Agenbrod, it would be a futile undertaking, for their DNA was ruptured by permafrost. At this stage biologists cannot "suture" DNA helices; but once they learn to do that, "Zharkov's mammoth" would be a mammoth of another color.
Once, washing a piece of the mammoth's fur from mud in the stream, Bernard Buigues washed away... a flower. Yes, a real flower as nice and fresh it had been two hundred centuries ago, petals, leaves and all! And when
Mrs. Agenbrod washed the mammoth's hair, it took on the color of fresh tea: the hairs proved to be 120 cm long. That is, much longer than the 70 cm described in the literature, and not at all coarse and stiff like wire. Zharkov's mammoth had fine hair, thinner than that of a horse's mane; it was soft and silken like a woman's.
Judging by the tusks and teeth, the mammoth was a 47-year-old male. His tusks were in fine shape, each 294 cm long and weighing 60 kilos. The total mass of the mammoth is about 6 tons. Here's Professor Vereshchagin's verdict: "Considering the condition of the masticatory surface of the teeth, the animal died of hunger."
But has all of "Zharkov's mammoth" survived intact? As an eyewitness and participant in the expedition, I must say: No! Unfortunately. His tusks and head are now in the custody of the Khatanga museum, and the rest is still frozen in a block of permafrost hauled to Khatanga in October 1998. We hope we'll be able to examine the spinal column, tissues, skin and stomach with its contents. All that is of immense interest to science. We have received applications from many laboratories in other countries for samples of the soil, fur and soft tissues. Parasitologists are especially curious: microbes and pests might have survived after all in the clay and in the hair of the animal, and that alongside the pollen of ancient plants. It will be intriguing to compare those microbial cultures with contemporary ones.
Somewhat later, roaming about the tundra to check on what the local folks and geologists had told us, we came upon new finds. For instance, we discovered a mammoth's skeleton, whole, at the river Novaya emptying into the Gulf of Khatanga. The mammoth had no tusks- we searched high and low for them from a helicopter by means of a radar invented by the Swedish engineer P. Vikstrom. Professor Vereshchagin showed me the vertebrae of that animal: four of them coalesced into ugly exostoses (excrescences), which is proof of osteochondrosis.
And something else too. Near Lake Mungurdakh we found the skull of a large male mammoth together with a few bones. At Lake Nalimjen we hit upon remains of three mammoths in deposits 40 thousand years old, i.e. older than the now famous "Zharkov's mammoth".
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